A member of the Foreign Service from 1926 to 1953, Kennan shaped American foreign policy after the Second World War and laid the foundation for U.S.-Soviet relations.
Kennan achieved prominence with the circulation of the “Long Telegram” of 1946 and the 1947 publication of the “X Article” in Foreign Affairs Magazine. In both, Kennan argued his view of the Soviet Union as an aggressive and imperialist state that the U.S. must resist despite their recent alliance in the war.
His theory of “containment”—that the U.S. should prevent Soviet expansion through diplomatic and economic means—became the basic premise of American policy until the end of the Cold War.
Warren Professor of American History Ernest R. May portrays Kennan’s two documents as a decisive shift in post-war thought. “[In 1946] a lot of people in Washington were concerned that Truman would have a primarily domestic focus, maybe even isolationist...[but] Kennan’s analysis was very persuasive to Truman [with its] argument of the Soviet threat and its understanding that the U.S. can’t retreat from the world.”
In 1952, after an impolitic comparison of Stalinist Russia to Nazi Germany, Kennan retired from the government and joined the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., where over the course of the next 50 years he published books devoted to twentieth-century diplomatic history. Two of them—“Russia Leaves the War” (1956) and “Memoirs: 1925-1950” (1967)—won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
In the mid-80s, on a trip of American historians to Moscow, May said he witnessed firsthand Kennan’s diplomatic and scholarly expertise in arranging a collaboration with Soviet historians.
“[Until then] I had known him primarily as a scholar...[but] in Moscow I saw him as a terrific negotiator. We got a lot of things we wouldn’t have gotten if we’d had only a scholar,” May said.
He added, “No other political diplomat had the same impact on American foreign policy, but at the same time he was one of the great international historians of the period.”
While May recalled Kennan’s remarkable ability as a negotiator and historian, combining the often mutually-exclusive spheres of political influence and academic renown, Saltonstall Professor of History Charles S. Maier ’60, offered a remembrance of the diplomat as a public speaker.
He recalled seeing Kennan in 1989 at a Christmas party hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations. “I remember telling my children I wanted them to go hear him at the Council. This is the man who wrote the script for foreign policy. He had an extraordinary presence, even for children.”
Maier agreed that Kennan had a tremendous impact on foreign policy, but added that while Kennan is often regarded as a warrior for democracy against Soviet totalitarianism he was somewhat uneasy with the democratic process.
“He was a very prescient man, but he was very non-American in some sense. He always really yearned for a society where a sort of cultivated elite could make decisions on foreign policy,” Maier said.
Kennan is survived by his wife, four children, eight grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.